Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

"The Observances" by Kate Miller (Carcanet, 2015)

Poems from Ambit, Poetry Review, Rialto, TLS, including the winner of the Edwin Morgan prize in 2008.

The first poem is "Regarding a Cloud", which begins thus -

In the ground is an eye,
satined and turtled,
regarding a cloud

It studies the scene
from a patch in the earth
and reflects: I am part of the sky

Actually it's a handleless spoon, convex side up. It's compared to jewels used as eyes in statues of gods, which people gouged out and stole. But this spoon has to stay "earthed", "balancing us on its shell" - an allusion a cosmic myth about turtles, I presume. So is the conclusion that we should welcome seeing things from a novel viewpoint, but we should keep our feet on the ground? There must be more to it than that. Perhaps the 6th line is the key - the spoon acquires self-awareness and identifies with heaven, part of which it reflects. Or perhaps it's significant that the wisdom is delivered by a suddenly appearing Anthony.

"Promise" seems minor. In "The Long Goodbye" (which has more clouds) "You" is more a tree than an old person. "Couple in the park with no kids" is minor. In "No Place" (aabcbcbc rhyme scheme), the persona identifies with a kid who looks newly homeless. They're both looking at a pair of Grebes who will return to the same nest year after year. And that's it?

Themes so far - persona as observer; personification of inanimate objects; a chain of imagery running through successive poems - clouds, trees, walks on the beach, birds. Quiet treatments - sometimes too subtle for me.

There are several poems that I can follow but I don't see why they should matter to me. In "all'antica" for example, the persona leaves a house past trees whose blossom is falling, and is blocked by a mare (rather than a car?). At the end "stooped gardeners turn to look,/ then go on, unconcerned, the tools to hand// unaltered since the year the Empress indulged/ her husband's whim for orchards.". "On Lower March, the Wallflowers" unconcerns me too. Ditto "Observances: The Chapels at Paleochora", "The Deposition", "From the Gods" (the latter describing the protracted actions of a couple (old? rustic?) as if it were a ritual or they were on stage) and "Pilgrimage". I wonder if some of the poems are there primarily because they fit into the sequence. "The Apple Farmers' Calendar" is more interesting.

When she uses extended metaphors, the vehicle and tenor can be interchangeable. One of them usually involves a static art. "Girl Running Still", my favourite poem so far, is in 5 parts stretched across 6 pages -

  • "I   If I could take one home" - The persona wonders which figure in a group sculpture (Nereid Monument) s/he'd like to take home. The original models for the sculpture are imagined, playing in the sea. Then we're told that the persona's uncle watched girls play similarly.
  • "II   At the museum - my last visit" - It begins "Today before I neared the usual room, a child ran up ... Watch me, he gestured, I am so alive". The persona's "sat too often over-hot like any visitor in hospital, distracted by illuminated signs, the clock, attendants". It's more hospital than museum - the aunt being the patient?
  • "III   In the dark and only now" - The persona is alone in the dark with the art-work, or the patient. A deeper understanding becomes possible.
  • "IV   Stone Waves" - It begins "Those men who took you from your bed". Then the persona watches quarrymen cutting out an appropriate block of stone to sculpt a woman
  • "V   Greeting" - "Your head may be on show elsewhere ... you wait, extend a hand towards the new arrivals"

I think it's a good poem. "At the root of the wind is strife" looks as if it could be interesting too, though I don't understand it. "Single Figures" is too minor. I like "Enter the sea" and "The shift". I don't get "After the Ban" or "Sea View and Separation, Sole Bay". I'm pleased to see that my home town features in at least 3 of the poems in the last section.

In summary then, a mixture of poems that seem too easy for me (I sense I've missed/underestimated something), some that are too difficult for me, and a few that are just right.

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